Leading Conceptual Change in a New “Virtual” Normal

Accepting the challenge of teaching virtually during the global pandemic

Middle school teachers must be leaders who demonstrate courage and collaboration (National Middle School Association, 2010). Such leaders are needed today more than ever. But leadership is especially difficult when educators have no compass for the worldwide crisis we are now facing with COVID-19. The changes occurring in our households and our classrooms are unlike anything we have ever seen before. Social distancing and virtual teaching are at the forefront of teacher’s lives. Such extreme changes can change our concept of life as we know it.

Conceptual change occurs when we restructure existing knowledge on a certain topic (Vosniadou, 2007). Many studies on conceptual change have dealt with science, as misconceptions in science can be embedded and difficult to change. For example, if a middle school student watches a forensic crime TV show, such as CSI, he or she may develop false scientific concepts (DNA is retrieved in seconds.) While such a scientific concept is not based on fact, it can be difficult to this perception even when accurate information is presented (Piaget, 1970).

The Model of Domain Learning (MDL), considers how conceptual change differs between individuals (Murphy & Alexander, 2008). Using the Model of Domain Learning (MDL), I will focus on three inter-related components—knowledge, interest, and strategic processing—as a framework for middle school teachers (Alexander, 1997).

A Real-World Dilemma: Conceptual Change during Coronavirus
In early February, a friend of mine called to talk about her family who lives in China. Two family members were has passed away in one week due to a cold. She explained that people were very ill and the sickness was spreading quickly. In her town, drones made sure people did not leave home.

I quickly called a friend who worked in pandemic awareness. Her silence said it all. As a researcher, I started to gather information. While it was not dominant in US headlines, news on COVID-19 was easy to find. I talked to family and friends during February, and shared facts and resources with each. I expected everyone to want to become informed.

Over the past six weeks, I told my loved ones to get prepared. I said “People are sick….it is spreading quickly….China….Italy shut down… buy essentials ….” While a few friends took heed, the majority blew me off. I was stunned when my intelligent, caring friends talked about spring break and reduced airline prices.

Similarly, the notion of academic social distancing and virtual learning required yet another form of change. I realized that my friends were uncomfortable changing the concept that they had regarding their daily lives. I could understand that.

Exploring the Public Landscape
The rest is history in the making. COVID-19 is here. Life has changed. Fourteen days ago, I was scheduled to attend a conference. After seeing an empty airport, I drove home and canceled. Again, people thought I was nuts. On Facebook, I see friends in restaurants, airplanes, and Disney World. Daily life is quickly changing. Cities and states have “Sheltered in Place,” NYC is a ghost-town, and grocery stores are empty. Likewise, teachers are learning how to virtual teach.

Unfortunately, such conceptual change is difficulty but necessary. Teachers need to take the lead on this change and consider the implications for a developmentally responsive approach to best serve our students. As society looks towards celebrities and politicians to lead us, it will be local teachers who lead the way.

Using MDL to Lead Through Uncharted Territory
Learners’ knowledge, interest, and beliefs are woven together with conceptual change (Murphy & Alexander, 2008). For middle school teachers, this conceptual change is twofold. First, teacher’s conceptual change considers virtual teaching. Second, this pedagogy must transfer into student learning. Below is the use of MDL to guide this change Alexander, 1997.

Knowledge is held at the topic (fractions) and domain (mathematics) level.

For the teacher – As middle school teachers, we must change our conceptions of and practices from real world classrooms to virtual landscapes. For some, teaching virtually will be very difficult, and for others it will be of greater ease. As leaders and collaborators, teachers can enhance their knowledge of virtual learning in a number of ways. One way to gain knowledge is through online tutorials and professional development. Similarly, I have looked to my peers to help guide my teaching by sharing their tricks of the trade. Those who are more skilled can help others by building professional learning opportunities for those they work with to collaborate. Finally, hands-on discovery works. Get on the computer and play. Today, it’s important to share and use each other as resources just like we always have.

For students – While many middle schoolers may be more technologically advanced than their teachers, they are not necessarily advanced in ways that will increase their knowledge. For example, TikTok will not help a seventh grader learn about ancient Rome. Thus, the concept of technology may need to change for students. For this, teachers will need to help students find the resources they need to access knowledge-based material. This takes some work. Look to activities that give students varying pieces of information on a topic. Be specific so students are able to find reliable information on which to grow their knowledge base. For example, share some resources with students and allow them to read, write, watch videos, discuss, and take virtual field trips. The new normal of virtual learning can even lead to a deeper knowledge base than happens in school.

Interest may increase with instruction on a topic while knowledge also increases.

For the teacher – As middle school teachers, we are inherently curious about how our students use technology. I have tried to change my concept of virtual learning to be a time to delve into my interests. Teachers should start investigating and learning about what interests them. For example, I began by downloading Zoom and “Zooming” with colleagues. Then, I went on a virtual field trip to a museum. I was happy to have the time to explore. In turn, my knowledge grew.

For students – Monopolizing on students’ interests through virtual learning is not that different than it would be in a classroom. The difference is that the freedom to explore online information may be greater than it is in the traditional classroom. As always, when possible, allow for autonomy. This may mean having students come up with interesting knowledge-based websites or completing and presenting group projects virtually. In this way, the learning can be reciprocal, as they will be naturally motivated to advance their breadth and depth of knowledge on a topic, while sharing their valuable online resources with their teachers.

Strategic Processing is knowing how to do something.

For the teacher – The heart of virtual teaching is the “how” of using technology. While pedagogical strategies are used daily in the classroom, virtual spaces are different. As leaders, we must venture immediately into the virtual world while finding our footing at the same time. Take time to develop your strategies, just as you would in the classroom. It is important to note that although the students are the same, the space is different. For example, your classroom management plan will surely look different in a virtual space. Moreover, teaching strategies will differ. A discussion feels different online than in person. Thus, your favorite strategy at school will feel different virtually. This is ok.

For students – Students will need support with strategic processing changes that occur. They may be surprised that some strategies that work for them in the classroom do not translate online. Teachers will need to lead them through this reality. For example, a student who is able to verbally share their knowledge in class may be less able to do so online or in writing. Students who are able to focus in class may not be as focused on a computer. Reassure them that this is ok, we are all learning and growing in our concepts of learning.

As leaders who demonstrate courage and collaboration, middle level teachers need to accept the exciting challenge of teaching virtually. This can be intimidating, as we have to change our concept of teaching as we know it. As leaders, focus on growth of teachers’ and students’ interests, knowledge, and new strategies.


Alexander, P. A. (1997). Mapping the multidimensional nature of domain learning: The interplay of cognitive, motivational, and strategic forces. In M. L. Maehr & P. R. Pintrich (Eds.), Advances in motivation and achievement (Vol. 10, pp. 213-250). Bingley, England: Emerald Group.


Alexander, P. A., & Murphy, P. K. (1998). Profiling the differences in students’ knowledge, interest, and strategic processing. Journal of Educational Psychology, 90, 435-447.


Murphy, P. K., & Alexander, P. A. (2008). The role of knowledge, beliefs, and interest in the conceptual change process: A synthesis and meta-analysis of the research. In S. Vosniadou (Ed.) International handbook of research on conceptual change. New York: Routledge.


Piaget, J. (1970). Piaget’s theory. In P. H. Mussen (Ed.), Carmichael’s manual of child psychology (3rded., Vol. 1, pp. 703-732). New York: Wiley.


Vosniadou, S. (2007). Conceptual change and education. Human Development, 50, 47-54.